Brace yourselves, the Taxi Driver's wife is breaking into the limelight with a brand new coffee company: Grace Hightower and Coffees of Rwanda. Grace Hightower De Niro is the most recent celebrity to lend her name to a social justice-flavored mission in coffee, and it tastes pretty good.
The project came into being during a trip to Rwanda last spring, where Hightower was exposed to communities who had successfully rebuilt themselves, through coffee, after the
1984 1994 genocide. Apparently the experience was inspiring enough to coax action from Hightower, who sought out some experienced players in the coffee industry to help set up relationships with coffee cooperatives and aid in quality control as she set up an outlet, stamped with her name, through which to sell Rwandan coffee in the States.
Granted, it's easy to be skeptical of projects like this -- habits of celebrity intervention in the Third World are so often economically unsustainable or ethnocentric in their approach to finding or supporting solutions.
That being said, we were relieved to hear that Hightower's buying practices seem fairly responsible, and aim principally to aid the effort towards increasing profits for small farmers by providing premium prices, supporting a cooperative movement that's already underway in Rwanda rather than imposing ideas from the outside. Placing the complicated politics of coffee-buying aside, and recognizing that we know little about the real impact of Hightower's project in Rwanda, premium prices for farmers is always a good thing. And we've been assured that prices paid are at least twice that of the Fair Trade minimum (a good thing when the market price is low enough).
How's the coffee? Up against the smattering of options on the Whole Foods shelves, it's pretty good. We had ourselves a swill or two at a luncheon where Hightower spoke, against a slideshow backdrop featuring photos of herself holding Rwandan children and gazing meaningfully at coffee cherries. Amid the gushing and heart-melting tales of triumph from misery, where we'd usually roll our eyes, we found hints of something earnest happening. Plus, the coffee was sweet and balanced. Hightower was quite humble and open about not being a coffee expert, a refreshing admission. Plus, having a Bono in the coffee world can't hurt, can it?